LONDON LETTER

TIARAS IN THE MORNING

Beverley Baxter January 1 1951
LONDON LETTER

TIARAS IN THE MORNING

Beverley Baxter January 1 1951

TIARAS IN THE MORNING

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

SHAKESPEARE, who left, almost nothing unsaid, declared that some are born great, some

achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. After the experiences of this morning I can modestly claim that whether or not I was born to greatness I have at last had it thrust upon me.

Lit it be known then that today at 11 o’clock the King (accompanied by the Queen) opened Parliament in the Chamber of the House of Lords which was graciously returned by the M.Ps to the peers as we now have a house of our own. M.Ps were informed that they should be at Westminster by 9.30 if they wanted to attend the opening.

Having seen the spectacle many times I decided to give it a miss, but as the morning wore on the old lure began to work. I looked at my watch and found that it was half past ten. There would just be time to motor to Westminster before the royal procession set forth from the Palace.

Alas for the plans of mice and men! At Hyde Park Corner no triffic was allowed through the Arch at Constitution Hill. The route from Hyde Park Corner to Westminster was out of bounds to all vehicles. But is there not a law in Britain that no one must impede an M.P. from reaching the House of Commons? There is indeed. Therefore with more hope than confidence I pointed to the House of Commons badge on my car and asked the policeman what he intended to do about it.

“Very well,” he said. Thus I passed under the Arch and drove slowly down the empty road that leads to Buckingham Palace. At the bottom I could see the Guards and a great mass of people, and there was the sound of a brass band. There was only one motor car on the whole route—and it was mine.

But between me and the Mall were His Majesty’s Grenadier Guards standing stiffly at attention. What

was to he done? Then I remembered the words of Foch in 1918: “My

flanks are giving way, my front is pierced I attack!” I saw an opening between two sections of the Guards and made for it. Then to my horror the band hurst into “God Save the King,” the Guards presented arms, and slowly from the Palace came a car which apparently contained the two Princesses. The crowds cheered and waved.

At a crawling pace the royal car started down the Mall. So did I for there was no place else to go. I judged that 100 yards was about the proper distance although I would have given a lot to be a hundred miles away at that moment.

Troops were presenting arms and each band stationed on the route blared out the National Anthem in turn as if it were the only one doing it. It never occurred to me before how often the King must hear that piece of music. No one questioned the solitary black-hatted figure in the car behind. If they thought anything it was perhaps that I was a private detective.

It seemed an endless drive to the Admiralty where the royal car turned to the right. This would give me a chance to escape. The Princesses would travel across the Horse Guards’ Parade and through Whitehall, whereas I could keep straight on and approach by the Abbey.

Then my heart really sank. A great concourse of people, to say nothing of a regiment of soldiers, barred the way to liberty. There was only one route clear —across the Horse Guards’ Parade. “God Save the King”—another band had given^ tongue. Slowly the royal car crept across the sacred square. Slowly I followed.

Now for the climax. There seemi to he a million people in Whitehc Civil servants leaned out of f windows of the War Office, the He Office and the Admiralty. On the' left was Scotland Yard, on the rights

Downing Street.

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The keenest police eyes in the world were watching. Not far ahead were the Houses of Parliament and my spirits rose. I would be able to drive into Palace Yard, where M.P.’s leave their cars and escape to comparative anonymity.

But, again to my horror, I saw that Palace Yard was blocked by soldiers and a dense mass of people. There was nothing to be done but go on to the entrance of the House of Lords and be received by the Lord Chancellor and his high seivants of state.

But just then a guardian angel came to my rescue. A House of Commons policeman at Palace Yard saw me and by some miracle parted the crowd and the soldiers and let me through. A hundred yards ahead the band at the entrance to the Lords blared into “God Save the King.” Far away in the distance the cheers told that the King and Queen were on their way.

Vastly relieved I walked into the House of Commons and took my seat. The Speaker was in the Chair but there was no debate. We were just waiting for the Royal Summons. Clement Attlee it oked very smart in a morr.ing coat and was in high spirits. Hugh Gaitskell, whose sensational appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer is one of the political romances of our time, looked happy but thoughtful. The Tories, who were nearly all in formal morning dress, merely looked thoughtful.

Three bangs on the outer door. Aha ! Strangers! Our Sergeant-at-Arms, complete with sword, went to see what it was all about. It was the Sergeantat-Arms from the House of Lords wit h a message from the King. We agreed that he should come in, which he did, and after much bowing he announced that His Majesty had reached the Lords and commanded our presence “immediately.” I thought that the stately official uttered that word with rather more force than was strictly necessary. What is more he seemed to enjoy it.

So the two sides joined up for a procession, headed by the Socialist and Tory front benchers and off we went.

There was a big crowd in the lobby who gazed at us as we passed. Personally I felt that it was rather a comedown. Only 10 minutes before I had been in my glory behind the royal car and here I was now a mere member of a stage crowd and not even carrying a spear.

It was strange to look upon the beautiful chamber that we occupied from 1941 until a few days ago, a chamber which was now a mass of color and elegance. It is fun to see women wearing evening gowns and diamond tiaras at 11 in the morning, but it is not every peer who can wear a coronet and a robe and look as if he enjoys it.

The King was in good voice, and there was not a trace of the stammer which made his speeches a few years ago an ordeal both to himself and his hearers. Beside him sat that great woman, the Queen, whose gentleness and goodness and strength have played such a part in the development of her husband. I was at her wedding in the Abbey when on one side of the chancel stood George V, Queen Mary, and the Prince of Wales whose personality had so gripped the imagination of the people that none of the other sons of the King counted in their estimation.

Cheers For the Chars

But supporting the bride were the proud black-haired Scottish relatives whose ancestry and castles went back to the days when Macbeth killed Duncan and stole the crown. That union of the Duke of York and the girl from Scotland seemed no more significant then than a mere break with precedent inasmuch as a British prince was not marrying a royal princess. And why not? He was only the younger brother and at best would only be expected to relieve Edward of some of the tedium of his princely and, subsequently, kingly duties. As a matter of fact there was more interest in the dazzling David Lloyd George than there was in the bride and groom.

Yet last week at Westminster, where history floats like a mist. I saw the King and Queen achieve a triumph

that they themselves could not realize.

The occasion was the celebration of the opening of the new House of Commons, and since the King (because of a spot of bother with Charles I some time ago) cannot set foot in the Commons it was decided that the celebration would be held in the vast and ancient Westminster Hall.

You will, I hope, forgive the repetition but 1 must once more declare that, when it comes to pageantry, there is no race to touch the English. Here was the scene before the arrival of t he Royal Family. On the steps, where the said Charles was duly sentenced to death, were a golden lion and a golden unicorn. Between them stood a row of Yeomen of the Guard, in other words the Beefeaters of the Tower with their pikes and traditional costume.

On one side in the body of the hall were the peers, and we were on the

opposite side. On a balcony at the right were a company of trumpeters in gorgeous raiment, and at the back on a raised platform was the band of the Grenadier Guards.

Now where the English excel is that no one is ever seen directing anything. Things just happen, but they happen rigidly to an unseen timetable. From the wings the Lord Chancellor in his robes, followed by the high officials of the House of Peers, makes a stately procession to the left side just, facing the great steps. Five minutes later the Speaker of the House of Commons, preceded by the Mace Bearer and followed by our high officials, makes a procession that ends exactly opposite the Lord Chancellor. A little later the Speakers from all the Commonwealth Parliaments, some of them of ebony hue, proceed in stately measure to their positions.

The guards’ band is in grand form and Elgar is, of course, in full supply. And then, just to show that English pageantry does not rule out a comic turn. 10 parliamentary charwomen in green overalls advance upon the carpeted aisle with brushes and brooms while the band breaks into an old music hall jig.

There is a gasp, then applause, and finally the Lords and Commons combine in a rousing cheer. The delighted, blushing ladies of the broom are all smiles. Probably never in the history of politics have charwomen had such a tribute from the elected and hereditary legislators of the realm. They disappear.

There is a pause and the atmosphere grows tense. The trumpeters are rigidly at attention and then in one concerted motion the trumpets are raised to the lips. Is there any sound so wild, so stirring?

The wild fanfare came to an end. We had all risen to our feet and turned toward the centre aisle. Softly the band began “God Save the King” and built up to a climax that sent one’s

pulses beating faster. Then the Royal Family entered slowly from the back and started up the aisle.

There was old Queen Mary with her spirit bravely defying the years. There was Princess Margaret vividly alert. There was Princess Elizabeth, twice a mother but looking quite beautifully girlish. Then came the King and Queen. He looked straight forward, but she turned from side to side with that quality she has of making people feel she is among friends.

As they reached their destination on the steps the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Commons ostentatiously covered the House of Commons Mace with a green cloth. We weren't going to have any nonsense about the King carrying away the Mace. 1 assure you that in such matters of pageant all other races are amateurs.

Then did the Lord Chancellor kneel before the King and afterward move to a microphone where he thanked His Majesty for graciously permitting the House of Commons to be rebuilt.

After a suitable pause Mr. Speaker of the Commons went through the same drill and thanked His Gracious Majesty for the same reasons. Perhaps I should explain that the two Houses of Parliament are in the Palace of Westminster, which is a Royal Palace and belongs to the King. We are his guests. In fact we are tenants except that we don’t pay any rent. So this whole affair was to thank the landlord.

Finally the King spoke, not five yards from where Charles 1 heard his sentence of death from Cromwell and his fellow parliamentarians. It was in this hall that they had brought the body of George V’ in a November twilight with the lonely wistful figure of Edward VIII following the coffin.

I have never heard the King speak so well. His voice had a manly, musical quality without affectation, and it carried marvelously throughout the vast place. There was nothing in the tone to suggest that he was speaking into a microphone.

When he ended the trumpeters split the air with their exultant cry. The band played “God Save the King” once more and then the Royal Family made its way through the throng while the guards’ band out-Elgared Elgar.

And as I watched the King go out I felt with an assurance which nothing could shake that the monarchy in Britain is stronger today than it has ever been. Amid all the changing values which have beset the post-war world, in all the swirling, eddying currents which have bedeviled the course of humanity, this institution of Britain’s constitutional monarchy stands like a rock. George VI, like his father, knows that the King is not only the first citizen but the first servant. And Queen Elizabeth knows that to be the first citizen and first servant he must have the sustaining help and guidance of the woman who is his wife.

That night there was a reception in the Speaker’s apartments in the Palace of Westminster. Instead of morning coats we men had to wear tails with such medals as gallantry, opportunism or position have garnered. By midnight 1 was wondering how to keep awake, and cogitating on how this incredible island of Britain in the throes of a Socialist revolution could challenge and excel the past in pageantry and ancient custom.

However, I must not weary you with too much pageantry. My chief purpose in this letter was to tell you how greatness was thrust upon me on the day I drove my car from Hyde Park Corner to Westminster. I shall never hear the National Anthem without thinking of the only time that I was on the receiving end. *-